Increased Marijuana Use raises Concerns about identifying Drug-impaired Drivers

Increasingly in the news is the surge in marijuana shops and dispensaries in many Canadian communities, notably Toronto and Vancouver, since the Liberals indicated their intention of legalizing marijuana as a regulated industry.  A Maclean’s article in April 20, 2016 titled “Why buying pot has never been easier” reported that the Kensington Market district alone has 14 marijuana dispensaries. In total for Toronto, there are allegedly over four dozen cannabis dispensaries and this number continues to grow.  Joe Cressy, a Toronto Councillor who is a chairperson for Toronto’s drug strategy implementation panel commented that entrepreneurs are actively filling the vacuum of cannabis distributors without fear of legal ramifications until Ottawa defines its plan for marijuana regulation or de-regulation as the case may be.

For many Canadians, a key concern with the potential increase in marijuana use due to easier access to the drug, is the potential for more drug-impaired driving accidents.  When pot was legalized in Colorado more than four years ago, there was a significant spike in traffic fatalities resulting from drug-impaired driving.  On May 9, 2016, a CBC News article stated that Toronto police have reported that impaired driving resulting from drug use was already up by 150 per cent in May.  However, the rise is not only attributed to marijuana use but also, the largest increase involves cases where drugs such as narcotics and depressants are combined.

A Government of Canada report, titled Driving under the influence of Cannabis, described a tragic accident near Kanata Ontario involving five young people who were killed in a car accident blamed on combined marijuana and alcohol use. The report cautioned that a person who is driving while intoxicated by pot has impaired judgement and motor coordination; specifically, psychomotor skills may be affected for up to five hours after use. The effects depend on the amount of cannabis used, the concentration of THC (the chemical responsible for most of its psychological effects), and the experience, morphology and expectations of a user.

The federal government recently announced that legislation will be introduced to legalize and regulate marijuana by early 2017; however, the Health Minister, Jane Philpott, has promised that the government’s drug policy will be grounded in scientific evidence and will include policies to prevent children from accessing marijuana as well as addressing drug addition and related crime issues (Toronto Sun, “Will legalizing pot lead to a spike in impaired driving?, April 23, 2016).  The MADD Canada CEO, Andrew Murie, added that the Canadian government has pledged that police will have access to roadside drug testing technology before the new drug policy becomes effective. Nevertheless, we have reason to be concerned because there is some evidence, according to MADD, that drugs are twice as likely to be involved in fatal crashes than alcohol.  Mr. Murie pointed to the Ontario road fatalities reported for 2012, in which 28 per cent involved drugs alone and about 19 per cent involved both drugs and alcohol.  From these numbers, one can conclude that almost 46 per cent of the 2012 traffic fatalities involved drug-impaired drivers.

Constable Clint Stibbe, speaking on Toronto Police accident reports, believes the incidence of drug-impaired driving fatalities is much lower: in 2015, only 28 of 1,364 drivers were determined to be impaired by drugs (Toronto Sun, April 23). However, a director of a U.S. government program that has studied the impact of legalized pot in Colorado says that police typically do not check for drug impairment when a driver fails the alcohol breath test (because it’s the same criminal charge), which means that drug-impaired driving may be significantly under-reported.

On September 22, 2016, a CBC news article titled “Companies to capitalize on coming crackdown against drugged drivers” reported that Canada’s Department of Justice recently commissioned an evaluation of drug-screening devices offered by three manufacturers and all three are being considered for approval. One of the products, “DrugWipe” is wiped over the driver’s tongue and different versions of this device can test drivers for cannabis, methamphetamines, opiates and cocaine.  Another product, a marijuana breathalyzer, is being developed by a former RCMP officer.

In addition to roadside testing technology, police officers will require drug recognition training.  But an important question that has not yet been resolved is, what is the appropriate legal limit for cannabis?  This issue is being studied at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, where participants are asked to drive in a simulator after having smoked a marijuana cigarette, and their reactions and driving abilities are being recorded.

In May 2016, Toronto police reported that they were seeing a decline in alcohol related accidents and an increase in drug related collisions. Going forward, this means a likelihood of increasingly more car accidents and injuries caused by drivers under the influence of drugs.  A recognition of this likely and disturbing circumstance points to the need for effective legislation and public education aimed at reducing driving while drug-impaired, similar to Canada’s ongoing efforts to reduce drunk driving.

Anyone who sustained injuries caused by an impaired driver under the influence of drugs or alcohol is entitled to seek damages for any of the losses they incurred.  If you or a family member were hurt in a car accident, call a skilled car accident lawyer at Kotak Law to find out about the strength of your claim and how we can help you obtain owed compensation.



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